I have been thinking about pets a lot lately because my family’s dog recently passed away. This was a devasting loss to our family because Rico was not “just a pet”. He was a very important part of our family, and we aren’t the same without him here with us. Life is quieter and much more difficult without him.

In my work as a family law attorney, I have found that many people feel the same about their animal family members as I do. As such, it is common for disputes to arise regarding who keeps the pet when a couple separates. Unknown to many, the California legislature saw this issue and put into law how the Court’s should handle such issues. Under California law, animals are no longer considered simple “property” and instead are treated more like children are when determining who the pet should live with.

California Family Code §2605 gives judges the power to consider the care and the best interest of the pet when making decisions in separation and divorce matters.

California Family Code §2605 states:

(a) The court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties, may enter an order, prior to the final determination of ownership of a pet animal, to require a party to care for the pet animal. The existence of an order providing for the care of a pet animal during the course of proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties shall not have any impact on the court’s final determination of ownership of the pet animal.

(b) Notwithstanding any other law, including, but not limited to, Section 2550, the court, at the request of a party to proceedings for dissolution of marriage or for legal separation of the parties, may assign sole or joint ownership of a pet animal taking into consideration the care of the pet animal.

(c) For purposes of this section, the following definitions shall apply:

(1) “Care” includes, but is not limited to, the prevention of acts of harm or cruelty, as described in Section 597 of the Penal Code, and the provision of food, water, veterinary care, and safe and protected shelter.

(2) “Pet animal” means any animal that is community property and kept as a household pet.

The Court also has the power to issue protective orders for pets against abusers. This is often seen in a domestic violence restraining order case where the abuser is violent to their partner, children and pets. When this is the case, the Court has the ability to order the abuser to stay away from the partner, children and pets. Butler Law attorney, Joe Rocco, has extensive experience with this issue and has successfully helped obtain the Court’s protection for several people and their pets from their abusers.

California is a unique state in that it recognizes that pets cannot be treated like any other physical inanimate property that needs to be divided in a divorce, like a house, cars, furniture, or personal property. When pets were treated this way, the party that was often awarded ownership of the pet was the person that purchased or adopted the animal. This method does not recognize the relationship between the animal and the parties nor the care the animal receives from the parties. While some judges did attempt to arrange visitation schedules for pets in the past, this was left up to the discretion of the judge, and if the judge did not feel your pet should be given extra consideration, then it was simply treated like another piece of property to be divided.

Now that the law has changed, however, if a party requests it then the Court considers the wellbeing of the animal, the relationship between the animal and the parties involved, and who is in the best position to be able to care for the animal and provide for the animal’s best interests. Because of this, Courts are now better able to address issues regarding the care, custody and protection of our loved pet family members, and custody agreements and visitation schedules are common.